The Emperor's Bridge Campaign

TO HONOR THE LIFE + ADVANCE THE LEGACY OF EMPEROR NORTON

RESEARCH • EDUCATION • ADVOCACY

Filtering by Category: Open Questions

OPEN QUESTION No. 4: Was the Christmas Tree in Union Square, San Francisco, Really Emperor Norton’s Idea?

The short answer is: It seems not.

But, the question invites a deep dive into the history of Christmas trees and Christmas decorations, more broadly, in San Francisco’s Union Square.

Pull up a chair for the long answer. It’s a fascinating and occasionally surprising story that includes some wonderful rarely seen archival photographs of Christmas in Union Square over the last century.

Bonus: Research for this article produced dates (years) for three photographs of Christmas trees in Union Square that previously either were incorrectly or imprecisely dated or were undated.

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OPEN QUESTION No. 3: Did Joshua Norton Really Leave San Francisco Between Declaring Himself Bankrupt in 1856 and Emperor in 1859?

Here's a "mystery" about Emperor Norton that may be less mysterious than many seem to think. Despite persistent speculation that Joshua Norton left San Francisco for a period of months or years just before declaring himself Emperor in 1859, the available evidence points to a narrative in which, most likely, the eventual Emperor remained a resident of the City from his arrival until his death.

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OPEN QUESTION No. 2: Did Joshua Norton Really Arrive in San Francisco With a $40,000 Inheritance That He Built Into a Quarter-Million-Dollar Fortune in 3 Years?

According to the "received" version of the Emperor Norton story: Joshua Norton inherited $40,000 from his father's estate. At around the same time, news of the Gold Rush reached South Africa. Joshua sailed west to seek his fortune in San Francisco, where he arrived in November 1849 with the $40,000 — a nest egg that he parlayed into $250,000 within three years.

But is this how it really went down? Not likely, according to the available evidence.

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OPEN QUESTION No. 1: How and When Did Joshua Norton Get to San Francisco?

The familiar version of Joshua Norton's San Francisco immigration story — a narrative developed primarily between 1879 and 1939 by that period's leading writers about Emperor Norton — holds that the future Emperor made his way from Cape Town to Rio de Janeiro, where he booked passage on the Hamburg ship Franzeska and arrived in San Francisco on 23 November 1849.

The "story of the story" — of how this narrative came together and was canonized — is interesting on its own. What has yet to surface, however, is any primary-source documentation verifying Joshua's passage on any particular ship or his arrival in San Francisco in November 1849.

Absent such evidence, what we really have in the "received version" of this story — as with a number of details about the Emperor's pre-imperial life, in particular — is more a work of "collaborative intuition," a theory in search of documentation.

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on aspects of the Emperor Norton biography that should be regarded as "open questions" — and opportunities for research.

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On the Trail of the Elusive "Frisco" Proclamation

No proclamation attributed to Emperor Norton more often is actually quoted than the one in which he is said to have railed against the word "Frisco." But did the Emperor actually write this? As it turns out, the source of the "Frisco" proclamation is far from clear. In this wide-ranging, link-packed essay, we detail our quest for the origins of the decree and find that all roads may lead to 1939.

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